Ahmed* (a pseudonym), a Bangladeshi migrant worker, regretted his decision to leave his home country for R.E.A.L Garments, an apparel manufacturer in Mauritius. He borrowed a substantial sum—$2,300—to pay the recruitment fees and related costs his agent charged him. After he arrived in Mauritius, he earned substantially less than his agent had promised, and it took him years to finally repay his debts. “If I had any idea or any understanding of any of this,” he said, “I would never work at this company.” Ahmed is one of many workers who spoke about their experiences during Transparentem’s two-year investigation of possible labor abuses at three Mauritian garment manufacturers: Denim de l’Ile (DDI), Firemount Group, and R.E.A.L Garments.
Workers told of feeling disillusionment and despair when, after paying exploitative recruitment fees they arrived in Mauritius to find that their wages were far less than their agents had told them. They described living and working conditions that no worker should endure, such as overcrowded dorms and insect infestations. Syed* (a pseudonym), a migrant worker at Firemount, reported going hungry and becoming physically weak due to the quality of food, saying, “The food is so bad, I would never have come. I would rather starve in Bangladesh.”
Some workers also reported facing intimidation and threats of punishment for speaking about their experiences—including the threat of deportation.
Transparentem’s investigation, completed in 2023, and company responses to its findings bring three stark realities to light (complete findings are in the full report):
- Many migrant workers at investigated suppliers reported they paid exploitative recruitment fees and faced abusive living conditions and intimidation, as well as other indicators of forced labor.
- As of the time of publishing, just three buyers—PVH, Barbour, and Second Clothing—have committed to reimbursing migrant workers for recruitment fees and related costs. These three companies together committed $420,593 to be used for repayments at one factory, R.E.A.L—meaningful action which should be commended. Groups of some buyers also came together to work with suppliers to improve working and living conditions.
- Workers are still at risk of exploitation. Currently pledged repayments will not reach workers across all factories investigated and most workers will likely not receive full repayment. Recruitment-related issues still must be prevented and addressed, including in the country of origin for workers, and many reported findings still must be addressed.
Buyer, Supplier, and Mauritius Government Responses
In the fall of 2022, Transparentem contacted buyers connected to the investigated suppliers, ultimately engaging with 18 buyers and the management at all four implicated suppliers with the findings and recommendations.
Transparentem utilized various data points to confirm the relationship between the manufacturers and buyers, such as publicly available shipping data, publicly available supplier lists, and worker interviews. Download the report for all details on the investigation and stakeholder responses.
Please note: not all brands owned by the buyers are produced in Mauritius or connected to the investigated factories. The brand names are provided solely for identification and descriptive purposes.
Seven brands that Transparentem approached did not participate in remediation on behalf of workers: Armani, ASOS (which owns major brands such as Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Reclaimed Vintage, AsYou, and Dark Future), Boardriders (which owns the brands ROXY, Billabong, Quiksilver, DC Shoes, RVCA, Element, and VonZipper), Foxcroft/The Apparel Group, John Lewis Partnership, Kontoor Brands, and Western Glove Works. Some of these buyers stated that they no longer sourced from the implicated factories at the time Transparentem engaged with them but did not deny that they had sourced from the factories at the time of the reported abuses. ASOS has played a role in a number of initiatives concerning migrant workers in Mauritius, and signed onto a Transparentem-organized letter to the Government of Mauritius, but did not participate in remediation. Western Glove Works proposed $50,000 to repay workers, but did not commit to implementing the proposal without further external support.
|Companies that Collaborated with Other Buyers on Remediation
|Companies that Did Not Engage in Remediation
|Companies that Reimbursed Worker-Paid Recruitment Fees and Costs
The Foschini Group
Western Glove Works
The Foschini Group
Rodd & Gunn
John Lewis Partnership
Rodd & Gunn
|The Foschini Group
Rodd & Gunn
The other engaged companies formed buyer groups to remediate conditions at all four investigated suppliers. Buyer groups for DDI, Firemount, and R.E.A.L commissioned audits by Verité to evaluate Transparentem’s findings. The buyer group for Aquarelle opted to work from audit findings provided by PVH and conducted by LRQA (formerly ELEVATE).
Audits reportedly confirmed some findings related to abusive working and living conditions. Buyers said the Verité and LRQA audits were unable to confirm Transparentem’s findings regarding high recruitment fees. In follow-up investigative work conducted by Transparentem, workers across the factories reported being intimidated and said they did not feel comfortable reporting grievances, including how much they paid in recruitment fees and related costs.
Despite repeated requests, none of the buyers or suppliers provided the Verité or LRQA audit reports to Transparentem.
Woolworths SA also relayed audits that it commissioned Quality Inspection Management (QIMA) to perform at two Firemount factories, which detected only poor food quality—and specifically of the rice.
Although Verité’s R.E.A.L audit reportedly did not confirm Transparentem’s findings on recruitment fees, R.E.A.L buyers PVH, Barbour, and Second Clothing still committed more than $420,000 for recruitment fee repayments, an important step towards giving workers the recourse they deserve. PVH committed to repaying a total of $390,456, Barbour committed to $19,523, and Second Clothing committed to $10,614.
When asked for comment on the investigative findings, suppliers responded by sending Transparentem their policies, which included measures intended to prevent many of the problems found, or noted that they were working to improve policies and implementation. This included providing workers with predeparture information on employment terms and conditions, stipulations that employers covered recruitment fees and related costs, zero-tolerance policies for harassment, or documentation that dorms passed government inspections. Firemount provided Transparentem with 2023 QIMA and Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) audits, which did not confirm Transparentem’s findings.
All four manufacturers denied that their workers had paid any recruitment fees. Firemount shared a notice it sent to all workers (and posted publicly in the factory) stating that “recruitment is a free service and no money is required to be paid directly or indirectly” to agents or sub-agents.
Importantly, the Firemount notice further warns workers: “If at any stage it is discovered that you have paid any money to the agent or a third party or other persons to secure a job at FMT Ltd., your selection will be disqualified.” Such a warning could intimidate workers from disclosing that they paid recruitment fees, and thus hinder remedy.
In the summer of 2023, Transparentem began engaging with the government of Mauritius and presented a letter to the government—co-signed by the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), Fair Labor Association (FLA), amfori, the Ethical Trading Initiative, and ASOS—calling for better support of migrant workers’ human rights. Transparentem leadership met with representatives from the Mauritius government including the Mauritius ambassador to the United States, the minister of labour, and the minister of financial services and good governance, in Washington, DC, and in Port Louis, upon invitation by the government.
The government has taken initial steps, but much work is needed. Mauritius adopted the Private Recruitment Agencies Act in October 2023, which includes important protections for migrant workers but, among other shortcomings, fails to clarify that foreign agents cannot charge fees to workers and does not provide for grievance mechanisms through which migrant workers can seek remedy. The government is deliberating a welcome proposal to exclude the costs of food and accommodation for migrant workers from the national minimum wage,¹ but did not respond to calls for improving the labor inspectorate, among other issues.
Call to Action
Workers, governments, investors, civil society, and industry have a common interest in securing the promise of a transparent, fair, and prosperous apparel industry in Mauritius. But this requires hard work to break from entrenched patterns of exploitative recruitment and deficient audits. It requires courage and innovation to build a new industry with decent living and working conditions. “I came here with so many dreams,” said one migrant worker in Firemount. “If I had known the reality, I definitely wouldn’t have come here.”
Buyers must work with suppliers to:
- Ensure that migrant workers are encouraged to disclose if they have paid recruitment fees, and are swiftly reimbursed for 100 percent of any fees and related costs
- Improve recruitment processes so migrant workers are not deceived and do not pay for their jobs
- Empower workers to feel safe reporting grievances and ensure workers are central to the development and effective implementation of solutions for all problems identified
- Root out intimidation and threats and ensure that unions have unimpeded and consistent access to workers and worksites
- Reform audit and inspection methodologies so that they are capable of identifying all issues and enable workers to speak their truth
- Publicly disclose all detailed social audits of Mauritian factories
Other stakeholders must also play a role in improving conditions for workers. Among other key actions, auditors should prioritize fully independent auditing practices that minimize the risk of deception through worker intimidation and maximize worker agency. The government of Mauritius should ensure that enforcement agencies have adequate resources and authority to investigate and take concrete action to prevent labor abuses. Investors should demand transparency from investees regarding preventative actions taken to protect workers in portfolio companies’ supply chains. (Please see the Call to Action section in the full report for the complete list of Transparentem’s recommendations.)
“If someone stood beside us,” one DDI worker told investigators, “we would be very happy. . . . We spend our days in hardship.”
Now is the time to stand beside, and for, migrant workers in Mauritius.
1. Government of Mauritius, “Summary of the Migrant Workforce in Mauritius,” October 6, 2023, pp. 6-7; Government of Mauritius, “Clarifications to Transparentem,” n.d., pp. 1-2,; Government of Mauritius, “Additional Information,” n.d., p. 1.